top scorer ahead of Mbappé, doubled by Henry, aims for Arsenal… the nest of Balogun

Folarin Balogun panics counters with Stade Reims this season. Scorer of a hat-trick on Wednesday against Lorient (4-2), the 21-year-old striker, on loan from Arsenal, leads the Ligue 1 scorers chart ahead of Kylian Mbappé. Quite an award for England international Espoirs, voiced by Thierry Henry and lauded by his coach Will Still.

Nicolas Pépé challenged him last summer, when he left Arsenal: to score ten goals in Ligue 1. And it only took him half a season to meet him. Folarin Balogun also did much better at the Stade de Reims, where he was loaned out with no option to buy. As February dawned, the 21-year-old striker is simply top scorer, with 14 goals in 21 matchdays. In front of Kylian Mbappé (13) and a squad made up of Terem Moffi, Neymar, Jonathan David, Wissam Ben Yedder and Alexandre Lacazette (12). The OL centre-forward, who joined him at the Gunners, is also one of those who advised him to come and strengthen in France.

And the result is quite spectacular, like the sensational hat-trick against Lorient on Wednesday at Auguste-Delaune (4-2). With his side trailing 2-0, Balogun turned the game around within thirteen minutes. Time to convert a penalty into force, to score with a volley from the right and to succeed in a superb recovery from the left. Something to impress his trainer Will Still, who installed him at the forefront of his 4-2-3-1.

A special relationship with Will Still

“He has a certain clarity because it’s difficult to score a penalty when you’re behind. And then he scores two goals of exceptional quality. Volleying is very difficult to do. And finishing with his left foot from a touch, he shows who he is. He still worked a lot for the team. He is the ‘Balo’ that we know, that we see every day. Hats off to him because I think it’s his first hat-trick,” reacted the 30-year-old coach.

Camerating his passing protégé a bit: “You really have to underline the quality of this last goal. The pass is perfect but normally his left foot is broken and there he manages to catch it flat with his foot and put it in a small net. “

Before the draw against PSG on Sunday at the Parco dei Principi, Will Still had also teased Folarin Balogun, author of a cold-blooded equalizer in the last second of added time (1-1). “I advise you not to speak to him in French because his French is broken”, amused the Belgian coach at the press conference. During a training filmed by Prime Video, he had already challenged his center forward on this matter, throwing him a smile: “Your French is absolutely atrocious, scary!”

A striker at the service of his team

Signs of affection that reflect the ease with which Balogun (who has been taking French lessons since his arrival) blended into the Champagne-Ardenne decor. With his likeability, open-mindedness and eagerness to progress in each session, the Gunners’ hopeful quickly won over audiences. “We managed to give ‘Balo’ an environment in which he feels good, explained Will Still last weekend. We immediately gave him importance in the squad and he gives it back to us in every game. We underline his goals, but there it’s all the rest. His runs, his availability, his sense of sacrifice and his state of mind when we don’t have the ball: he’s a very complete striker, who has already shown some very interesting things.”

His team-mates are all delighted, like Azor Matusiwa, the Dutch midfielder: “Folarin is really very important to us. Not only with his goals but also with his game. He helps us a lot. He is full of confidence, we must continue like this. We are very happy to have him by our side”.

He can play for three nations

Born in Brooklyn, Southern New York, where part of his mother’s family resides, Balogun was raised in London. He started playing football at the Aldersbrook club in the north-east of the city. Around the age of 11, he stood trial at Arsenal and Tottenham simultaneously. For almost a month and a half he played for the two rival clubs at the same time before signing a contract with the Gunners. English international Espoirs, he also wore the United States shirt in U18, knowing that he too can be called from Nigeria, the country of his parents. For the moment, the number 29 from Reims has not yet chosen his sporting nationality. It will be a family decision, he said.

Meanwhile, this big fan of Brazil’s Ronaldo continues his rise by bullying goals at a breakneck pace. In the major European leagues, only Erling Haaland (25 goals for Manchester City) and Harry Kane (16 goals for Tottenham) do more damage. Arriving in Reims under some pressure, he has already done better than his predecessor Hugo Ekitike, who left for PSG and scored 10 goals in 1 last season. Only missing one match (against Lille, last month). His incessant calls, his running speed, his execution speed, his constant efforts and pressing him make him today one of the most dangerous strikers in the French league. And a real poison for opposing defenses. Way beyond his stats lines.

Always looking for improvement

Close to Bukayo Saka, with whom he trained across the Channel (they are the same age), Folarin Balogun, who was able to benefit from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s advice at Arsenal, is looking for permanent improvement. “I know I’m fast and I’m able to resist contact, so the most important thing for me is really timing,” he confided on the LFP website in November. If you leave at the right time, no one can stop you. “I also have to be more efficient in front of goal, more deadly. I have to be able to finish plays in all possible ways: left foot, right foot and header.”

A mentality much appreciated by the Reims staff, Will Still in the lead, at a time when the team remains on thirteen games without defeat in L1: “He is a very aware person. He knows exactly what he has to work on. But he doesn’t have a huge ego. He doesn’t worry. Having a player like that is a daily happiness.”

An exile against the advice of his family

After seven appearances for Arsenal’s first team (two in PL, five in the Europa League), Balogun was loaned to Championship side Middlesbrough last year. An inconclusive experience, in the role of attacking midfielder (21 games, 3 goals), which convinced him to leave his London cocoon to try his luck in the Marne. Against the advice of his family. “I’ve always liked taking risks. I’m not one to play it safe. The simplest solution would have been to stay in England. But I didn’t feel like it. I really wanted to test myself, get out of my comfort zone and see how I would react to a new challenge.”

A mentality that surprised Thierry Henry. The top scorer in the history of the Gunners (228) knows Folarin Balogun well having seen him born in the club of his heart. “He’s fine at Reims because he wears the same colors as Arsenal, the 1998 world champion joked on Prime Video. little lower. They don’t like to move too much. Show the boy’s mood. What I like about him is that he is an English striker. He takes depth, fights, puts pressure. And he ends too. He’s not afraid of anyone and that’s important.”

Valuable advice from Thierry Henry

Before PSG-Reims, Henry and Balogun exchanged a few words on the lawn of the Park. The 21-year-old then paid his respects to the former Highbury idol by imitating his celebration from the corner spot. Before finding him on set and asking him for a live photo, with his Zimbabwean teammate Marshall Munetsi. It must be said that Henry has always been kind to the young Londoner, giving him valuable advice. First at the training center, then at the beginning of his professional career.

“I saw him during an Arsenal-Tottenham derby, Balogun told LFP. in front of Thierry without seeing him. He grabbed my arm to say hello and ask me how I was. He told me to hold on and had words strong enough to motivate me, in particular: “If you believe you have the potential to play for Arsenal, show it. To this day I vividly remember his encouragement.”

A spot with the Gunners next season?

Also scorer in the Coupe de France against Les Herbiers (National 4), the 1.78 tall right-footed player, whose value is estimated at 14 million euros by the Transfermarkt website, will now have to continue in Ligue 1 with a new status. And more vigilant defenses. An opportunity to gain further maturity before considering a return to Arsenal, where he is on contract until 2025. Hoping to find a place in Mikel Arteta’s squad, who may have been crowned England champions by then.

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